When D. Brian Baker, second-generation owner and president of Custom Vac Ltd. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, was asked to teach an HVAC course at a local college a few years ago, he jumped at the chance. But before long, Baker realized the constraints of the program and red tape at the college were keeping him from teaching his students to the best of his ability.

But instead of giving up and moving on, Baker had a better idea. He bought the former yarn and knitting store next door to Custom Vac’s building in 2009, and, with a little help from his friends, completely remodeled and opened it as Westech Energy Training Centre.

Now, Baker teaches one course at a time, with up to 16 students in each course, helping his students enter into highly competitive apprenticeship programs or advance their current knowledge and skills.

“My whole premise is to have them learn,” Baker said. “All they get from me is knowledge and information to either break into the industry or help them along in the industry.”

Baker’s unwavering commitment to his students’ success, as well as to the HVACR industry’s future workforce, is what makes him The NEWS’ 2013 Best Instructor contest winner.

Starting Young

Baker, who is now 54, began his career in HVAC much earlier than most. “I started when I was 7,” he said. “I rode with my dad when he was working for the Red River Co-op, and I drove a truck probably from the age of 11. I started cleaning oil furnaces and carrying stuff in. I’d like to think I was helpful, but I probably got in the way a lot.”

Despite his current enthusiasm for education, Baker dropped out of high school his sophomore year, when he was just 16 years old.

“It wasn’t challenging at all, so I said, enough is enough. And my dad said, ‘You’re not sitting at home — if you don’t want to go to school, you get your arse to work.’”

But going to work without an education wasn’t easy. Though Baker had a few certifications under his belt already — it helped that his mother taught an oil burner mechanic course in the city — he soon began pursuing certifications and licenses in several different areas, aided by a tutor who helped him make up for lost time. These days, the number of licenses, memberships, and certifications Baker holds is enough to impress even the most seasoned industry veterans.

Filling a Need

In the Winnipeg area, Westech offers training to students who are not already involved in an apprenticeship. “We have a structured apprenticeship program [in Manitoba] — a compulsory apprenticeship program,” Baker explained. “If you hire someone to come and work for you, and they’re performing the tasks of the HVACR technician, they must be a registered, indentured apprentice or journeyman to perform the work. In other words, you’re guaranteed to be trained. The problem is that, in a few months, you may say it’s not for me.”

For those looking to break into the field of HVAC, or perhaps improve their knowledge and gain more hands-on experience, Baker said his school offers an invaluable opportunity. “There is no school other than mine — I’m the only one,” Baker said. “The only other opportunity they have to get training in the field is to find an apprenticeship, sign on with a contractor, and go to work.”

Baker said that for those who need a little extra help in a certain subject, or for those who perhaps aren’t yet sure if this industry is for them, Westech’s courses help prepare them for the next step in their careers. “These courses give them a grand total of 135 hours of contact training, specifically in HVACR,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, they’re either committed to continuing on in the mechanical industry as technicians or designers, or they’re not.”

More than a Teacher

Baker’s passion for creating “lifelong learners” and helping his students any way he can sets him apart from other educators — and sets his students up for success.

Stef Hall, a former Westech student who has taken Baker’s course in power engineering, said Baker’s course was interactive and informative. “He always had parts in class to show the class and pass them around,” she said. “He showed us videos and always kept us on our toes with pop quizzes. He would go around the room and ask us all questions to make sure we were understanding and not just nodding our heads.”

Hall added that Baker is always ready and willing to help his students outside of class, even if they are no longer enrolled.

“Even now, he gives up his free time to help me with certain things, seeing as I have not yet gone to write my exam,” she said. “I would, and have, recommended his course to others. Brian is very considerate of other people and will go out of his way to help anyone. All they have to do is take the time to ask.”

Volodymyr Sovinskyy, another Westech student, called Baker one of the best instructors he’s ever met. “He really deserved to be nominated for instructor of the year,” he added.

Ray Kolbuch, retired chief examiner for the Province of Manitoba, has known Baker for more than 30 years and admires his dedication to safety, his company’s advocacy efforts, and his skills as an educator.

“As a teacher, Brian is head-and-shoulders above most other instructors in the training services,” Kolbuch said. “His course of study always exceeds what is in the actual curriculum. Most of all, he has time to sit down with a student to help them — even after class, if necessary.”

Kolbuch, who served as chief examiner for 26 years, also touted Baker’s vast background experience in HVAC and his constant thirst for knowledge. “He probably has more of a technical library than most Canadian colleges,” he joked.

An Inspiration to Others

Above all else, Baker is the kind of educator that makes a positive impression on students while also equipping them with the skills necessary to succeed.

Andrea Halpin, senior manager of brand marketing at hilmor, which sponsored the 2013 Best Instructor and Best Trainer contests, said working with stellar HVAC educators like Baker will be an integral part of ensuring future generations of HVAC workers are adequately prepared to enter the industry.

“Ideally, the industry should be working hand-in-hand with HVACR schools and instructors to help prepare the next generation of technicians,” Halpin said. “Programs like hilmor’s Retool Your Future contest, which awards scholarships and tools to the winners’ schools, is an example of a partnership that bridges the professional with the educational side of the industry.”

Halpin and hilmor thanked Baker for his commitment to advancing the industry by inspiring and motivating future technicians. “HVACR instructors are instrumental in developing skills for up-and-coming techs and ensuring the industry’s future is in good hands,” Halpin said. “Hilmor supports programs like the Best Instructor contest because it recognizes and rewards instructors who are dedicated to enriching the lives of their students.”

Baker said he looks forward to running the family business with his wife and son, spending time with his three grandchildren, keeping his finger on the pulse of the industry, and finding new ways to help his Westech students succeed.

“We’ve got to get to where the trade will accept the delivery of some of this training via the Internet, but there’s still some resistance in my jurisdiction,” he said. “It’s being offered at the apprenticeship level, but they’re not accepting it, and to me, that’s sad.”

In the meantime, he is working on integrating Skype and other online programs into his curriculum. And while he acknowledged that some things must be taught hands-on and in person, he said it would be unfortunate to not take advantage of any and all tools that could help maximize his students’ learning potential.

“There’s not enough time to teach it all,” he lamented. “If you give them the information and the resources, then they have the ability to learn more as they go along. But this is just the start.”

Publication date: 11/25/2013 

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